by Eleanor Allen, CEO, Water For People
Our world as we know it has turned upside-down over the past two weeks due to COVID-19. If I am not obsessively reading the news, I am worrying about the potential impacts of the pandemic on my family, employees, and the people we serve at Water For People. Being a naturally optimistic person, I am trying to see where the bright spots could be in this situation. Especially today, on World Water Day, I want to focus on positive things! While I admit it is hard to see a bright side of the COVID crisis, I have already witnessed six silver linings:
1. Water For People’s work is more important than ever
At Water For People, we exist to promote the development of high-quality drinking water and sanitation services, accessible to all, and sustained by strong communities, businesses, and governments. Good hygiene and hand washing practices are core to what we do because there is no cheaper and better life saver out there than soap and water. The foundation of our work is sustainability with regards to clean water, good hygiene and safely managed sanitation. That is in our DNA. The world needs us now more than ever. Once the pandemic reaches the low-income communities where we work, and where the world’s most vulnerable live, it will be nearly impossible to force "social distancing," and if they don’t have soap and water it becomes mission impossible.
I am inspired and motivated because we can help. And I am honored to lead this organization that is the best in the world in water, sanitation and hygiene. The work that we do is super critical and more vital than ever, and our employees are second to none. Plus, our government partners in our nine operating countries that are critical to our success are now more alert to the importance of safe water, sanitation, and hygiene.
2. Partnerships will get us through
While we are busy cost-cutting and protecting the revenue we have raised so far this year, if we cannot continue to inspire giving, it will not be enough to do the work we planned to do. Thankfully, we have solid partnerships with our funders and will likely have some flexibility in grant terms and conditions. Under the circumstances, we are being challenged to continue program delivery since it requires people working in the field. Of course, we want to retain our teams in place so that once we can get back to our normal work routine, we actually have the people to get the job done. Some of our funders may also offer "Bridge Grants" to cover the costs in these uncertain times when we cannot function at 100% efficiency.
Our Business Development and Marketing team is the strongest I have ever worked with. They are truly dedicated, positive, and creative out-of-the-box thinkers who are coming up with innovate ways to reach new audiences. For example, they are going through the four "Google-sprint" steps (idea-build-launch-learn) in less than a week with various concepts under development in their quest for new revenue streams!
In addition, we have a small army of volunteer fundraisers across our 50 committees that are dedicated to continuing to raise money for Water For People. They are creatively thinking of ways that they can move their fundraising activities online instead of in physical settings. I am so fortunate to be able to work with all these incredible people and partners! From the bottom of my heart, thank you!
3. New opportunities to increase our impact are being created as you read this
Since our mission of delivering safe and reliable water and sanitation services, and promoting good hygiene (including hand washing), is core to stopping the spread of the pandemic, new opportunities have opened where we can build on our expertise and increase our impact. These include:
- Enhanced efforts on the importance of hand washing in homes, schools, and healthcare facilities for the most vulnerable.
- More systems-strengthening with government ministries involved in health and hygiene to create sustainability and resiliency in health care. This is critical to changing the status quo so that when the next pandemic occurs, we are better prepared. This is especially true for improving personal hygiene practices and hygiene in health-care facilities.
- Support to aid and disaster relief agencies that are financing new emergency infrastructure such as hospitals and health care facilities. Our role could be to ensure that good hand washing and hygiene practices are included in the scope of work to ensure that disease transmission is broken.
4. Human behavior change is becoming mainstream
When I entered the nonprofit world five years ago, I was mostly ignorant to public health/human behavior change theories. Now I know them well and am fully aware that one of the hardest parts of our work is getting people into the habit of thoroughly washing their hands, even when they have soap. I know I am personally challenged to do it for 20 seconds following the CDC instructions (even if I sing Happy Birthday to time myself), and my husband and sons are quick to tell me when I fail. Well dang, if awareness about the importance of hand washing didn’t happen at lightning speed in the US during this crisis! Hopefully this will be part of the new normal for people across the globe. Washing hands could greatly reduce the infant mortality rate if only people, especially health care workers, would do it consistently and with soap.
5. Leaders shine in a time of crisis
When I look at our Crisis Response Team at Water For People, I think how lucky I am and how fortunate the organization is to have this team. No one has "experience dealing with a global pandemic" in their job description. Yet all eight of the team members have stepped up, without hesitation, to lead. We continue to refine our crisis response plan each day as the challenge before us is so dynamic in nature. No one complains. Everyone completes the tasks assigned to them and brings up new ideas that could potentially help us. Collaboration at its finest. This is truly an example of servant leadership. The Crisis Response Team is building a set of practices that is creating a stronger and more resilient Water For People and will allow us to ultimately create a more just and caring world. Again, I couldn’t be more grateful for the dedication and commitment of this team.
In addition, let me take the time here to complement each and every employee at Water For People. Water For People is an organization that relies on people to do difficult and outstanding work each and every day. I am proud to say that everyone is going above and beyond their call of duty in this ever-changing situation. Thank you one and all!
6. Self-care is front and center
All this time at home, in isolation, could lead to loneliness and bad eating and exercising habits. Yet it can also do just the opposite. I find that since my schedule is more regular, and I am able to actually plan my exercise routines (e.g., walks the dog, ride my bike on my indoor trainer or outside if it isn’t snowing!), do more yoga, meditate every day, and just be more mindful in general. While my work life is very stressful, I feel I can manage my stress and remain calm. My thoughts are clear.
In addition, my family life has changed. Our busy lives meant my family and I were rarely able to eat together. With my older son away at university, we didn’t spend much time together anymore. For spring break, my older son was supposed to be in Turkey and my younger son in Washington DC. Now we are together — baking, eating, playing board games, darts, ping pong, taking walks, and talking about real things. That is the best part! I have also really enjoyed connecting with colleagues, friends and family on virtual "coffee breaks" and "happy hours" via videoconferencing. Why didn’t we think of doing that before? Plus, I am not flying or driving nearly as much as I used to, so my carbon footprint has dropped dramatically. I am happy for that.
With life’s toughest challenges come the best learning opportunities. I am convinced of that. Even so, I have never lived through a crisis quite like this one. My mother says it reminds her of living through World War II in the Netherlands. Before, I could only imagine what that was like through her stories, but now I have at least a small glimpse. I am confident that we will come out of this crisis stronger and more resilient. I am grateful to discover these silver linings, and I am sure there will be more. However, I hope this COVID-19 pandemic ends quickly. It has been terribly unsettling, and I wish for a more stable and peaceful world.